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Selective Hearing

By Aimee York

It’s an epidemic among children, is there a cure?

Sound Familiar?

As parent’s we often hear ourselves repeat the same sentences multiple times a day and end up exhausted and frustrated with the lack of response we received from our kids.  Selective hearing is often more of a colloquial, somewhat amusing term to describe the mischievous ways of children. However, when applied to contexts outside the home and school, it can lead to challenges beyond simply learning to listen.

What is Selective Hearing?

Our ability to select what we hear is referred to as the ‘cocktail party effect’. This was described by British scientist Colin Cherry in the 1950’s. It explains our ability to focus on one person’s voice, and block out other noise around us. Using this skill effectively helps us function in society and select the right source of auditory noise to listen to.

Selective hearing can be defined as the tendency of some children to select what they hear, and either tune in or out of what is being said to them. The difference between this and the effective use of the Cocktail Party Effect is that children are often described as selecting the ‘wrong’ source of noise to listen to. The word ‘select’ implies a choice. If selective hearing is not behavioural and is quite pervasive, then it may not be a choice.

Selective hearing does not necessarily involve whether a child can hear or not. In fact, many children with selective hearing have perfect hearing levels. Selective hearing often has to do with the processing part of our auditory system; the part where the sound information reaches our brains.

Things that can lead to a child’s selective hearing include:

  • Are you saying too much? – Remember kids have short attention spans. Don’t give them five instructions to follow, stick to one or two key instructions at a time.
  • Are they focusing on something else? – Kids can become engrossed in the activities they are doing (it’s great for their concentration, not so great for parents though). Make sure when speaking to you child, you have their full attention.
  • Are you doing something else when speaking to your child? – Children respond better when you are giving them your full attention. Even though you’re busy with a million things, try to speak to them face-to-face when asking them to do something.
  • Are you Criticising? – Kids will tune out if you’re constantly criticising them; it a natural behaviour.
  • Do you order or beg your kids? – If you’re ordering your kids around like it’s the army or begging them to do the things you ask, chances are they’ll learn not to listen to you.
  • Do you follow up words with actions? – You must be consistent with this and if you’ve asked them to tidy up their toys or no TV, then that means no TV.  If you don’t follow up, you are teaching your kids to ignore you.

What to do to help your child with Selective Hearing?

Selective hearing can’t be cured with a magical wand, but there are things you can do to help your child improve their listening skills. For everyday cases of selective hearing, here are some top tips on how to regain your child’s attention.

  • Look at me –   Ensure your child has time to stop what they are doing, turn and face you, and make eye contact.
  • Clarify – Ask your child to repeat back or summarise what you just said to check understanding.
  • Make it visual –  If you’re asking your child to do something as part of a routine, print out some pictures to remind them visually of what is required. Stick them on the fridge or somewhere communal for easy access.
  • Positive reinforcement – When your child starts to become successful at listening and less selective, reward them with verbal praise or a small treat for their good listening skills.
  • Reverse the roles – If your child asks you to do something, try to get your child to impress any of the above four tips back on you as a parent!

These simple tips should help your child build good listening skills, it will take time and dedication but the results will be worthwhile for both parties. If these tips don’t help or if you suspect your child has challenges around any aspect of auditory processing or attention, contact either your doctor, a speech pathologist, audiologist or occupational therapist for further help.


Aimee York is the Director and the Principal Occupational Therapist of KinderCloud.

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